WASHINGTON - Democrats are striking a more urgent tone on negotiations over President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, as a compromise remains elusive after weeks of talks and measured optimism from both sides.
In political talk shows on Sunday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said a clear direction on the plan is needed by June 7, when members of Congress return from a week-long recess.
The White House unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure and climate plan two months ago that included billions in funding for clean drinking water, high-speed broadband, and elderly and disabled care. Senate Republicans last week made a revised $928 billion counteroffer that leaves out much of what they do not consider “traditional” infrastructure, a sticking point that has consumed much of the debate over the plan.
“It’s certainly encouraging to see the healthy conversations that have happened over the last days and weeks, but the president keeps saying inaction is not an option. And time is not unlimited here,” Buttigieg said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The American people expect us to do something. They expect us to deliver. And it’s my hope that these continued conversations really over these next few days will be productive and will lead to that clear direction.”
When asked whether Democrats would move forward on their infrastructure plan without Republicans if the two sides do not reach an agreement by June 7, Buttigieg stressed that the conversations could not go on “forever.”
“I think we are getting pretty close to a fish-or-cut-bait moment,” Buttigieg said, though he quickly added a conciliatory note that “on the fishing side of things, the negotiations have been healthy.”
Buttigieg said it was encouraging that Republicans seem to be embracing the idea that $1 trillion was about the right amount but said Democrats have concerns about what was not included in the GOP counteroffer, including money to eliminate 100 percent of the lead pipes in the country, as well as investments in climate-related initiatives and veterans hospital infrastructure. He also emphasized the view that the plan needs to make investments over and above what would have been spent anyway.
“This is a moment for a generational investment in American infrastructure. Otherwise, we’d be going into all this trouble having all these conversations and doing all this work, just to stay in 13th place as a country,” Buttigieg said on ABC News’s “This Week.” “I don’t think that’s what the president wants. And I hope that’s not what the congressional leaders want, either.”
Buttigieg also seemed to reject the idea of taking money out of funds already committed to pandemic relief.
“We don’t have to spend those same dollars twice,” he said. “Let’s keep our commitments.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who is leading GOP efforts to negotiate on Biden’s infrastructure bill, defended Senate Republicans’ most recent counteroffer.
“The president basically tasked us to come back with something close to $1 trillion in areas and the scope that we as Republicans feel constitutes infrastructure. Also, we could spread it over an eight-year period of time,” Capito said. “And that’s exactly what we have done ... He told me on the phone just the day before yesterday, ‘Let’s get this done.’ And I think that means that he has - his heart is in us. We have had some back and forth with his staff to sort of pull back a little bit, but I think we’re smoothing out those edges.”
Capito said the fact that Democrats haven’t tried to push their plan forward without Republicans shows they are still interested in working together.
“There’s a hunger for bipartisanship,” she said. “It’s worth it to show this country we can work together, we can compromise.”
Both Republicans and Democrats have gone to great pains to describe the negotiation process as happening in good faith. Biden has indicated he is willing to compromise, and Capito has over the past month characterized her conversations with him as “constructive and substantive.” Biden had originally set a Memorial Day deadline on the infrastructure talks, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that negotiations would continue even while Congress was on recess.
On Sunday, however, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., described waiting to negotiate with Republicans for any longer as “a misstep,” citing the stated goal of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.: defeating the administration’s agenda. She also noted that only six Senate Republicans voted with Democrats to support the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“That’s a problem. And I don’t think there’s necessarily goodwill behind all negotiations,” Gillibrand said on “State of the Union.” “And I think the American people elected us to solve the problem of covid, to rebuild the economy, rebuild the infrastructure, and I think it’s our moment to act.”
The senator did not answer directly when asked whether she thought Republicans were negotiating the infrastructure plan in bad faith.
“To me, it means we’re about to miss the moment that we have to answer the need of this country,” Gillibrand said. “We are in an important - an important time, where people need government to work for them. And so we have to answer that moment with bold reforms. And I think waiting any longer for Republicans to do the right thing is a misstep. I would go forward.”
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The Washington Post’s Steven Zeitchik and Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.